(Editor’s note: This is the second part of a multi-part series regarding GRDA’s relicense request to FERC.)
MIAMI – The relicense for the operation of the Pensacola Project No.1494-438 is looked at from very different viewpoints from the river and the lake.
From the Neosho River, the City of Miami is looking at the relicense request from the Grand River Dam Authority to FERC first as an opportunity for mutually beneficial compromise, and second to rectify long-standing issues regarding backwater effects of the Pensacola Project, as well as the evolving effects of the project on Miami.
Costly flooding, safety issues, non-usable property, damages, and the economic impact on Miami and the surrounding area are concerns and complaints often associated with the operation of Grand Lake and the Pensacola Project.
The City of Miami's commissioned Tetra Tech study was the first comprehensive study of the flooding here in Miami, and the dynamics of the Neosho River, but Miami City Manager Dean Kruithof says more studies are needed to understand the complete picture of flooding here.
“We spent a significant amount of tax dollars on a Tetra Tech study because none had ever been done before, which was a holistic study of the river system,” he said. “It only scratched the surface. Not every flood in Miami is because of Grand Lake, or because of GRDA, but what is being shown is the dynamic of the river is changing.”
Kruithof says according to the Tetra Tech study there are over 15 feet of silt accumulated over many years at Twin Bridges.
“You ask anybody who goes down to Twin Bridges and fishes, especially over the last 40 years,” he said. “The study is showing that's almost becoming like a secondary dam to cause backwater in Miami. It's not just what's happening at Pensacola. It's that you have that siltation at Twin Bridges and the water can't move as quickly, so the water backs up especially during heavy rains in Kansas.”
Dredging may raise other concerns regarding sediments containing mining heavy metal deposits from the stream and rivers upstream flowing into Grand Lake. Kruithof said the health of the lake needs to be considered and studied in regards to any possible dredging as well.
The previous Rule Curve changes approved by FERC to keep the lake levels higher through Labor Day was just a symptom of the larger issues facing Miami, according to Kruithof.
“In a lot of ways we can't blame them (GRDA). You want the water higher, and people recreate during that time of the year. We get that,” Kruithof said. “The whole reason they lowered the lake was to plant millet, and it wasn't being done...Our whole point wasn't that specific issue, but just the overall issues and problems we've had; the flooding, high water, backwater, and the legal issues that are taking place.”
This is precisely the time and place in the relicensing process to get involved with commentary, study requests, and intervening measures, according to Kruithof.
“What FERC told us, was in essence, and we'll see if it holds true, that,‘We'll let this small adjustment be made. It's not really going to hurt anything, but the issues, Miami, that you have, that's when you should bring it up - during relicensing,’” Kruithof said. “Here we are.”
Kruithof said no matter how many times comments, concerns or issues have been raised or recorded in the past with FERC, this must all be redone in answer to the new relicense process. He emphasized greater response numbers will help FERC realize the magnitude of the problems faced here.
“These comments are going to an entirely different entity, this is going to FERC, and the people that are looking at this at FERC are going to be looking at it like they are looking at it for the first time,” Kruithof said. “So, if somebody feels like they have told their story three times, well you're going to need to tell your story a fourth time because we want to make sure that your story gets to FERC. That it's not filtered through anybody else or forgotten about or left in a file cabinet. This new process has started, and you need to get your story to FERC so they can consider it. We need stories to be told. It’s powerful. I’ve seen when regular citizens step up and say how the decisions are affecting them, and this is such a unique lake.”
Grand Lake’s water levels and flood control are the responsibility of both GRDA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
“You have GRDA controlling it up to about 750 feet, and then above that are the flood elevations that are controlled by the Corps of Engineers, plus the fact it’s documented, it is known, they do not have all the easements they needed. That was a decision made 80 years ago, so that's what we're having to live with,” Kruithof said.
Those living along the Neosho River claim the frequency of flooding increased especially in the ‘80s once lake levels grew higher to accommodate the hydroelectric power generation on Grand Lake at Pensacola Dam.
Kruithof said this isn't necessarily an adversarial position with GRDA and the City of Miami who purchases power from GRDA to provide electricity to Miami utility customers.
“We're getting much more involved in economic development. GRDA has been a great partner for us. You've seen the millions of dollars we've had to put into fixing our electrical system, GRDA has helped us many, many times. They've come in with technical information, they've come in with their crews to help us out, they're great when it comes to things like that,” he said, “I think the lawsuits have been justified. People have lost their property and use, and it had to go through courts, so there has to be that barrier, but some of those barriers can eventually be broken down if we can find a way to find the revenue to get the proper easements, we could have a great relationship with GRDA.”
Kruithof pointed out the City of Miami's Comprehensive Plan has taken into account the areas that are most susceptible to high water to turn into ‘green areas’ as well as areas along Tar Creek and Central Avenue. Brush cleanout is ongoing to enhance the appearance and allow better water flow and drainage. The City advocates raising Steve Owens Blvd. and Highway 125 above the flood levels at the Fairgrounds to improve safety and economic development opportunities.
“One of the first things they say when we talk to an economic prospect is, 'Well, don't you guys flood a lot?'” Kruithof said.
“I think that what needs to be looked at is, I would like to see an entity that is totally responsible for the lake because there’s this dual entity of GRDA being responsible to 750 feet and then the Corps being responsible after 750 feet.”
He gave an example, during the April 30 flood, Miami had to close off Hwy.125 and had water over Steve Owens Blvd.
“When the rain started the lake level at Grand Lake was 751 feet, the license, the target was supposed to be 743 feet, or it was almost nine feet higher than it should have been. The difficulty in that was they were just slightly over, but they were pulling it down because of generation, not opening gates, and when the rain started, well by that time it takes a lot to lower the water, so the water backed up here,” Kruithof said. “They were actually flooding properties below the dam as well as above the dam. So they have to get to the point where somebody is looking at when it's raining in Kansas, we better open the gates here. We don't want to see the lake low, what we're saying is we can tell pretty quickly when that river starts going up, start letting the water out. Something needs to be done where GRDA and the Corps aren't pointing fingers at each other.”
Kruithof believes easement acquisition needs to be considered on a case-by-case basis, and flood control measures may be more appropriate in some areas such as near NEO A&M College, and he said some areas such as the Fairgrounds will most likely always flood.
The Tetra Tech study backed much of FEMA's revised and updated re-mapping data, but only studied the Neosho River's effects.
“More people are going to have to have flood insurance because the FEMA maps are going up and when we talk to FEMA officials they say it's because of backwater,” Kruithof said. “The effects of the Spring River have never been studied, ever.”
Attorney Larry Bork is representing the City of Miami including 200 plaintiffs in flood damage litigation. Attorney Carlos Gutierrez from a New York law firm, Davis Wright Tremaine has been retained by the City of Miami for their expertise in dealing with FERC and FERC regulations in regard to FEMA re-mapping issues and to intervene in the relicensing process. The significant legal fees come from the City of Miami's budget.
“We're going to be an intervener and going to FERC and saying we're the ones affected by the way this lake is operated and the way you have allowed this lake to be operated, and also the tribes have an attorney as well,” Kruithof said. “It's a fight worth having, but those resources could go somewhere else. The goal is for Grand Lake to serve the purposes best for all involved. If proper easements were in place we wouldn’t even be talking about this…80 years ago they knew they were shy about 12,000 acres of easement they should have bought, they knew that. Their attitude was if there is a flood we’ll just pay for the damages it’s cheaper than buying the easements, but then they never paid for the damage.”
Kruithof said the relicense process gives property owners and the City of Miami the chance to see change and compromise beneficial to the stakeholders along the lake and river.
“Things have changed so much since the lake was built. Its’ time to say what’s the best way to run this lake now. Our hope is instead of making this fight, let’s make it a collaboration,” he said.